Irish History Overview

Nationalism vs. Unionism

In 1858 the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was formed with the aim of creating an independent Irish republic by force. The members called themselves Fenians (from Fianna Eireann, mythical Irish Warriors), and had a large support base, particularly among the Irish abroad. In the USA and Britain the IRB operated as Clan na Gael, allegedly responsible for a series of terrorist outrages in England  for which several individuals were hanged, as were participants in a failed 1864 rescue attempt, taking their place in popular history as “the Manchester Martyrs”.

In 1867 the IRB staged an uprising in Ireland that was easily suppressed by the British authorities, and the leaders were transported to the colonies (from where more than one subsequently went on to fame and fortune). The IRB went into the background, but some Fenian militants became prominent in other “constitutional” movements, channelling funds from American Clan na Gael members over the next 50 years.

The second half of the 19th century saw a surge of activity on the part of various Catholic organisations.  Fundraising campaigns in America allowed new Catholic churches to be built in many parishes where the old church was still occupied by the Church of Ireland, resulting in the familiar double steepled villages common to this day. A Catholic University was established in Dublin, and the seminary in Maynooth was considerably expanded. Queen’s Universities were also founded in Belfast, Cork and Galway. Catholic schools opened all over the country, and education of the poor, largely under Catholic control since the previous century, was extended by British legislation recognising and subsidising the Church’s role. Amongst the higher echelons of the clergy, the dominant theological current was Jansenism, a deeply conservative and reactionary outlook.

The Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869, becoming a voluntary creed. The Irish Free Masons, formerly a liberal influence in high society, became something of a Protestant cartel. A group of Catholic businessmen founded the Knights of Columbanus to exercise their collective strength to force Protestant employers to hire Catholics.

Although industrialisation had taken root in Dublin and in the north-eastern counties of Ulster, the rest of Ireland remained an agrarian economy. Visitors often commented on the squalor of the Irish countryside. Rural tenants were subject to high rents and arbitrary evictions by landlords and their land agents. In 1879, the Land League was founded to campaign for reform.

The campaign to repeal the 180o Act of Union was continued by the Home Rule Party, which wanted to reinstate Ireland’s Parliament, but did not want complete independence from Britain. Charles Stewart Parnell, a haughty but charismatic Protestant, got massive support by merging the Home Rule and Land Reform campaigns. In 1880 he became leader of the renamed and radically reformed Irish Parliamentary Party, which began to use filibusters and other obstructive tactics in the UK Parliament, forcing Irish affairs to the top of the British political agenda. Though no great orator, Parnell’s political skills were such that he was described as the strongest man the House of Commons had seen in 150 years.

The word “boycott” was coined at this time, originally in reference to the use of the tactic against a particularly hated land agent in County Mayo. Parnell and the Land League encouraged the boycotting of any peasant who moved into a farm where the previous occupant had been evicted. Between 1879 and 1882, the violence arising from these tactics grew so bad that it became known as the Land War.

The British government tried to solve the problem in 1881 with the first of several Land Acts, but the violence continued. The Land League was banned and its leaders, including Parnell, were imprisoned, but continued to direct a rent strike campaign from Kilmainham jail in Dublin. Eventually, the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone agreed to terms and the “Kilmainham Treaty” was signed. The agitation was called off and the policy of land reform continued.

Parnell always believed that solving the Land Question should be the first step on the road to Home Rule. The two issues came to dominate British Parliamentary politics. Most members of the British Conservative Party were against Home Rule, because they thought it would weaken the United Kingdom, and felt that if Ireland broke away, other parts of the British Empire would try to as well.

In 1885, a caretaker Conservative government needed support from Parnell’s party and Ashbourne’s Land Act 1885 was the price paid for this support. The Act was very popular and 25,000 tenant farmers became owners of their farms. Over the next 20 years, most of Ireland’s agricultural land passed into the hands of tenant farmers, mainly due to the Conservative policy of “killing Home Rule with kindness”.

The Liberal Party was divided, but eventually became committed to Home Rule.

The Irish Parliamentary Party won in virtually every Irish constituency outside eastern Ulster in two UK General Elections. Parnell was by now the “Uncrowned King if Ireland”. Newspaper allegations that he had been connected with the Phoenix Park Murders, an 1882 atrocity committed by a Fenian splinter group, were proved to be based on forged letters (the culprit committed suicide in Madrid in 1888), and he received a standing ovation from the House of Commons. But when it was revealed that he was involved in an adulterous romance with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea, Victorian England was outraged and Catholic Ireland even more so. Denounced from pulpits around the country as a sinner, Parnell reacted arrogantly, and his mishandling of the scandal led to his political downfall and physical decline. His death in the arms of Kitty O’Shea, now his wife, in Brighton in 1891 at the age of 46 is regarded by many as a national tragedy for Ireland. His party split into factions.

The Jewish population of Ireland, previously miniscule, was augmented by the arrival of refugees from persecution in Eastern Europe in substantial numbers, leading to the establishment of new synagogues in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Limerick.

Irish Nationalists believed that Ireland could be made into a self-governing nation. They had to tackle several problems, because some aspects of what constituted a nation (a unique and widely spoken language and a common religion) were missing. Irish was only spoken in small areas and the Irish were both Protestant and Catholic.

In 1884, some Irish Nationalists started the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) to promote Irish sports such as hurling and Gaelic football. In 1893, the Gaelic League was founded to promote Irish language and culture. Both organisations were extremely successful, attracting thousands of members. Together, they instituted what is now referred to as the ‘Gaelic Revival’ in Ireland.

Most Irish Unionists were Protestants who believed Catholicism was an oppressive, backward religion, and feared that Home Rule would result in “Rome Rule”. Moreover, they believed a parliament in Dublin run by what they regarded as ‘primitive’ Catholic farmers would be bad for business. The ‘Irish Unionist Alliance’ received large donations from both Protestant and Catholic businessmen in Dublin, Cork and Belfast, who stood to lose most from Home Rule.

Randolph Churchill, a leading British Conservative, told the Unionists in Ulster, where Irish Unionism was significantly stronger than anywhere else, that they could count on the British Unionists to help them, famously declaring that ‘Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right’. In 1892, the Unionists started to use the slogan ‘Erin go bragh’ to show their commitment to maintaining Ireland’s position as a part of the UK.

Queen Victoria (1837-1901) visited Ireland on four occasions. Her eldest son, Bertie, visited frequently as Prince of Wales and later as King Edward VII (1901-11), and his successor king George V (1911-36) toured the country in 1912. All of these royal visits were met with massive popular acclaim, particularly in Dublin, and only isolated nationalist opposition.

In 1900 a new party, Sinn Féin [Ourselves Alone], was founded by Arthur Griffith, who dreamed of an Austro-Hungarian style dual monarchy. The most radical nationalists were the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), who still advocated violence as the means to achieve total independence.

Religious control of education was strengthened by the Education Act 1906, which distinguished between Catholic and Protestant National Schools.

Catholic zealotry led to anti-Jewish riots in Limerick in 1904.

The country had little industry outside the north-east and Dublin. Sporadic outbreaks of sectarian violence became a serious problem in Belfast, where Protestant employers were accused of discriminating against Catholic workers, and Protestant dominated Trade Unions did nothing about it.

In Dublin the conditions of the working class were particularly deplorable. In 1900, one-fifth of its work-force were unemployed as labour was in surplus, and average wage levels were barely half London rates. One-third of the city’s families occupied one room accommodation in decaying tenements, so disease and high death rates were endemic.

James Larkin, an experienced English trade union organiser, established the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) to mobilise the city’s unskilled labour. By 1913 it had 10,000 members, and had rapidly become Ireland’s biggest and most militant union, with its own distinct blend of trade unionism, republicanism and socialism – ‘Larkinism’.

In 1913, Ireland’s most bitter labour dispute began at the Dublin United Tramway Company (DUTC), owned by William Martin Murphy, a conservative nationalist and ex-MP, who had founded the Dublin Employers’ Federation in 1912. He demanded that all DUTC employees forswear membership of the ITGWU or be dismissed. Larkin immediately struck back by calling the tramway-men in his union out on 26th August 1913. The company responded by locking them out, at which point Larkin orchestrated a wave of ‘sympathetic strikes’ affecting Murphy’s other businesses as well as those supporting him.

The employer’s federation then agreed to lock out all employees who belonged to the ITGWU and replace them with strikebreakers. By late September, the dispute involved 20,000 employees across the city along with their 80,000 dependants. Violent clashes between workers and the police were frequent – especially at picket lines and where blackleg labour was involved. Prolonged rioting ensued when the Dublin Metropolitan Police baton charged a crowd Larkin was addressing in Sackville St. Two people were killed and numerous civilians and constables were injured. An attempt to send strikers’ children to temporary foster homes in Liverpool was prevented by the Catholic Church on the grounds that Catholic children should not live even temporarily with Protestants. The strikers were supported by many of the Irish intellectual and artistic community as well as militant nationalists.

But by January 1914, Larkin conceded “We are beaten. We make no bones about it”. However, he had mobilised the Dublin labour force for the first time, and employers thereafter dared not treat their employees with such casual indifference as before. In October 1914 Larkin left Ireland for the USA.

Scotsman James Connolly ably filled the vacuum. He reformed the Irish Citizen Army, launched in November 1913 to enable the locked out men to defend themselves in clashes with the police, into a tightly disciplined group. Its founding principle was that ‘the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested by right in the people of Ireland’. It developed strong links with the IRB.

An Irish Home Rule Bill had been passed by the House of Commons in 1893, but subsequently defeated in the House of Lords. However, the Parliament Act of 1911 reduced the peers’ veto on legislation to a delaying power. They rejected a new Home Rule Bill in 1912, but it was nonetheless due to become law in 1914.

A tremendous outcry arose in Protestant Ulster, where 218,000 men signed a Solemn League and Covenant pledging to use all necessary means to oppose Home Rule. Private armies were raised – the 85,000-strong anti-Home Rule Ulster Volunteers Force (UVF) in the North, led by Dublin Irish Unionist MP Sir Edward Carson, and the 180,000-strong pro-Home Rule Irish Volunteers in the South. Civil war threatened. The idea of partition was widely mooted for the first time.

With the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, implementation of this Government of Ireland Act was postponed “for a year or until the end of the war”. Many in Ireland, even staunch supporters of Home Rule, agreed that this was the patriotic thing to do. The leader of the Home Rule movement, John Redmond, called for Irishmen to answer the Empire’s call.

A majority of the Irish Volunteers joined the British Army and fought in Western Europe, where many were killed or wounded. But the worst casualties of all were suffered by the 36th Ulster Division, made up of UVF volunteers, decimated at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Rumours of conscription plans for Ireland caused widespread unrest that year.

While many Irishmen were fighting in Europe, some radical nationalists, declaring “England’s emergency is Ireland’s opportunity”, began training for yet another uprising. The remnants of the Irish Volunteers were renamed the National Volunteers, and they and the IRB attracted many recruits from the Gaelic League, including Padraig Pearse, a fanatical schoolmaster and poet who believed in blood sacrifice, poets Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, and Countess Markiewitz, née Constance Gore-Booth, a militant feminist and socialist, founder of na Fianna Eireann, a nationalist boys’ brigade.

In 1915 Sir Roger Casement, a distinguished British diplomat and early human rights activist turned Irish nationalist, was arrested while trying to smuggle arms from Germany into Ireland. His subsequent hanging for treason amid allegations of homosexuality caused huge controversy.

On Easter Monday 1916 armed members of the National Volunteers, the socialist Citizen Army and eager Fianna boys, under mainly IRB direction, staged a rebellion in Dublin, seizing several factories and other key buildings. Pearse read a Proclamation of Independence from the steps of the GPO, where fighting between rebels and British troops was subsequently particularly heavy. Countess Markiewitz supervised trenches in Stephen’s Green under the bemused gaze of guests at the Shelbourne hotel. Amid widespread public indifference or hostility, the inept uprising was suppressed within five days, with 450 killed and over 3,000 injured.

The rebels were spat upon as they were led away through the ruined streets of the city. More than 3,000 people were arrested, and over half were interned in Britain. However, British reprisals under General Sir John Maxwell, late of Egypt, were extraordinarily insensitive to volatile Irish public opinion. Fifteen rebel leaders were condemned to death, and shot over a ten-day period in Kilmainham jail, including Pearse, MacDonagh and the very ill Plunkett. Connolly faced the firing squad seated due to an injury. These executions created a massive public outcry. The Irish Parliamentary Party was seen as ineffective, and Sinn Féin became the main Irish political organisation.

Sinn Fein‘s candidates won most of the Irish Seats in the 1918 UK general elections (including Countess Markiewitz, the first woman MP in British and Irish history). Having pledged not to take their seats in Westminster, they set up an Irish House of Commons, Dáil Éireann, in Dublin’s Mansion House, headed by Eamonn de Valera, a 1916 Rebellion leader who had not been shot due to his USA citizenship.

The UK government attempted to suppress the new body, and violence erupted across the country. The   “War of Independence” or “Anglo-Irish war” lasted for two years. Under Michael Collins, the new Irish Republican Army (IRA) used “flying columns” and other guerilla warfare tactics very effectively. Policemen were murdered, and juries refused to convict. Prisoners died on hunger strikes.

Martial Law and internment proved ineffective. The British government sent special militias, the Auxiliaries and the notorious “Black & Tans“. Both sides committed many atrocities. Anglo-Irish “Big Houses” were frequently attacked, and many Protestants fled the country. British forces set fire to entire villages and towns. On Bloody Sunday, 21st November 1920, the IRA shot dead 19 British agents, and in retaliation, a group of Black and Tans fired randomly into a crowd of civilians at a Gaelic football match at Croke Park, Dublin, killing 12 people. Ten days later the IRA shot dead 17 British soldiers in Munster. A British bombardment of the IRA-held Customs House in Dublin destroyed thousands of public documents and records. Over 1,300 people died in the conflict (550 of them troops and police).

In 1920 a new Home Rule Bill tried again to reach a compromise: separate parliaments, one for Ulster, one for the rest of Ireland. Ulster unionists accepted the deal, while Irish nationalists rejected it.

Eventually, under heavy pressure from British public (and royal) opinion, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George agreed to negotiate with Sinn Féin.

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